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10 Offbeat Literary Works of Non-English Writers

Tombleweed . . . Comments

Most book lists on this and other sites contain the usual suspects, but I think by now everyone who wants to read Haruki Murakami or Thomas Pynchon, already has. Moreover, most of these lists tend to focus on American and British literature, whereas the world is bigger than that. And last but not least: who needs realism if you can have books that create a surreal and absurd world? That’s why I’ve created this list of 10 books written by non-English authors that can be called either experimental or offbeat. No worries for the non-polyglots: all the books on this list have been translated into English.

10

Alessandro Baricco
Ocean Sea

Ocean Sea2

Alessandro Baricco is an Italian author, who is most known for his very small novella ‘Silk.’ He is often called the successor of Italo Calvino, and though that comparison isn’t exactly right, it gives at least a vague guideline of what to expect. I always think of his novels as disturbed Disney movies, and especially ‘Ocean Sea’ fits that description. In a small seaside town, professor Bartlebloom is trying to find out where the sea ends. There is also a painter who only paints the ocean, using water of the ocean as paint. And then there is this girl suffering from a mysterious illness. All characters stay at the same inn, and all look at the sea for answers.

9

Roland Topor
The Tenant

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Roland Topor may not ring a bell, but the 70s movie ‘The Tenant’ by Roman Polanski is perhaps better known. It was based on a novel by Topor and tells the story of a Polish file clerk who rents a room in Paris and soon discovers that the previous tenant has tried to kill herself. Furthermore, his neighbors act really weird around him. Topor, a French artist, was perhaps even more known for his illustrations. His short stories are also very enjoyable, especially a morbid funny story about a school bus that crashes and kids who throw their limbs through the bus.


8

Andrey Kurkov
Death and The Penguin

Death-And-The-Penguin

Penguins – who doesn’t love them? Victor, the main character in ‘Death and the Penguin,’ does and when the zoo in his hometown decides to give away animals because they can no longer feed them, he takes home a depressed pet penguin. From this point the story turns into a twisted crime novel. Victor writes obituaries for living people, but soon finds out that all the people he writes about die. That’s all I can tell, but there is a reason why Kurkov is the most successful Ukranian author at the moment. And it’s not just the penguin.

7

Daniil Kharms
Selected writings

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Being a writer in a communist regime must feel like being a dwarf in a country of giants. Russian Daniil Kharms was even more unlucky, because his fondness of absurdism and the avant-garde, had to be hidden. Social realism was the only literary genre the Soviet regime allowed. Luckily Kharms discovered that he had more freedom if he turned to children’s literature. Kharms hated children by the way. Still, more interesting are the small stories or ‘scenes’ he wrote in secret. Most of them have no real plot and are just absurd, but his use of language makes it very interesting to read. One of my favorite stories is called ‘Falling Ladies,’ and can be read here.

6

Vladimir Nabokov
Invitation to a Beheading

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Another Russian writer, although he is more known for his American novels. Lolita is quite an off-beat book because of its theme, but ‘Invitation to a Beheading’ is even more eccentric. The novel tells the story of Cincinnatus C., who is awaiting his execution in a big prison without any fellow prisoners. He is accused for some vaguely defined human trait he has. What follows is a novel that somewhere was described as “Franz Kafka meets the Marx Brothers.” Cincinnatus gets visits from the prison ward all the time and when a fellow prisoner occupies the cell next to him, things get really weird (and funny). The story quite resembles ‘The Trial’ by Kafka (though Nabokov said he hadn’t heard of the Czech writer back then).

5

Raymond Queneau
The Blue Flowers

08-Raymond-Queneau--The-Blue-Flowers-(Atheneum--1967)--Jacket-Alfred-Zalon

The French author Raymond Queneau was a member of the Oulipou-movement, a group of writers who believed in constraint literature. They imposed all kinds of rules on themselves while writing, the most famous example being ‘A Void’ by George Perec, a novel without the letter ‘e’. ‘The Blue Flowers’ isn’t stylistically restrained, but the novel does follow a very peculiar story line. It follows the idea that if you dream you’re a butterfly, it could also mean that the butterfly dreams it is you. In the novel we meet The Duke of Auge, who lives in the Middle Ages, and dreams he is Cidrolin, a French man living on a boat in the 1960s. Cidrolin however, dreams he is the Duke of Auge. Although they live in a different time, their stories are woven together.


4

Kobo Abe
The Box Man

The-Box-Man

Existentialism – I love it. The Japanese author Kobo Abe is often referred to as the Japanese Kafka, so it’s not hard to figure out what to expect. In ‘The Box Man,’ we meet a man who wears a big cardboard box over his head. He walks through the streets of Tokyo this way, while scribbling his thoughts on the inside of the box. He is destined to lose his identity. In the meanwhile he describes the reality outside of the box. There is a man with a rifle who is determined to shoot the box man, and a doctor who wants to become a box man himself. As the novel progresses, the reader kind of starts losing his identity as well.

3

Peter Verhelst
Tonguecat

1-3

The second Belgian on the list, this time an author from the Flemish-speaking part of the country. Peter Verhelst’s ‘Tonguecat’ won the biggest literary prize in Belgium and he is a very respected author, although his novels aren’t always that accessible. In ‘Tonguecat’ he takes mythology and turns it into something very dreamlike. The book contains a lot of stories that, for example, involve minotaurs who aren’t half man half horse, but half man half motorcycle, and the prostitutes in Tongecuat don’t sell their bodies but stories. The subtitle of the book is “a story brothel.” But the most interesting thing about Verhelst is the language he uses. It’s like an hybrid form between poetry and prose.


2

Slawomir Mrozek
The Elephant

The Elephant

Slawomir Mrozek, again, is a writer who had to survive in a communist environment, and used absurdism as a sort of criticism against the regime. That’s why in the story collection ‘The Elephant,’ we read about people who have a revolutionary as a pet and about a zoo keeper who replaces a dead elephant with an inflatable one. But the funniest story is the one about a boy who asks his uncle what a giraffe looks like. Because the uncle only reads books on Marxism, he cannot answer that question. The nephew can only conclude that giraffes don’t exist, since Marx hasn’t written about them. That kind of anti-Soviet humor.

1

Boris Vian
Foam of the Daze

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Before I came up with this list, I already knew what would be my number one. Boris Vian is one of my favorite authors, although he is also known for his music (he was a French jazz artist). His novels are very surreal and jazz is a recurring theme. In ‘Foam of The Daze’ we meet Colin, a rich man who has invented the pianocktail, a piano that mixes cocktails if you play certain melodies. When he meets Chloé, he falls madly in love and they marry a little bit later. Alas, their love doesn’t last that long, cause soon they find out that Chloé suffers from a lily in her lung, a deadly disease. At the same time, Colin’s friend, Chick, stars losing control in his obsession to obtain all the works of philosopher Jean-Sol Partre, and the absurd world they live in responds to the growing gloominess of its characters. Did I mention one of the characters is a mouse? Michael Gondry is working on a movie adaptation!

+

Amélie Nothomb
Hygiene & The Assassin

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Amélie Nothomb is a Belgian author, writing in French, with a very big fan base in France. She publishes a book a year. Although her latest books are quite sloppy and not very inspiring, she has produced some quite original novels in her early years. Her debut novella ‘Hygiene & The Assassin’ is one of those books. When the world-famous author Prétextat Tach announces he’s dying – of a fictitious disease – all journalists are dying to have a last interview with him. Too bad Tach is an evil man, who succeeds in humiliating all of them. But then a female journalist enters the game, and the confrontation between the misanthropic writer and the determined reporter turns into a brutal clash.



  • Art Vandelay

    Seriously though, nice list. I read quite a bit and it’s always nice to hear about some different things check out.

    • ARSE

      I found this list extremely boring. Why do I want to read a list about the summery of books. Why do people on this site think they are so smart and educated and need lists like these? This is called boring, and your not an interesting person if you like this list. Everyone leaves these long comments, filled with their wisdom and opinions on the subject matter…no one reads these comments. If your so smart and full of wisdom go become a professor and talk to 500 kids in the morning and share you wisdom there not here.

      • Frank

        F*ck off troll and take your fail elsewhere.

        • ARSE

          In the statement I made, what is not the truth?

          • ARSEHOLE

            It’s actually quite funny to read the sentence, ‘Why would I want to read a summery of books.’ in a statement that contains spelling and grammar mistakes!

        • Emperor

          keep on feeding those trolls, Frank.

      • Art Vandelay

        Arse- Maybe if you read more books you’d have an easier time trying to spell. I’m not trying to sound smart, I’m simply stating that a few of the books this person included in the list seem like the may be worth reading. I’m sure you’re a huge fan of Big Bang Theory or something stupid like that.

      • Maria

        Actually, i like to read the comments…
        I often enjoy that more than the list.
        like your comment, Even though you’re obviously an
        uneducated idiot and your comment was very rude, it was hilarious to read!

      • sam

        This is a great list with short insight into the books, not at all boring. These are my favorite types of lists because i like to read and it is nice to have a list of books and descriptions right in front of me. If they bother you so much why do you bother to read them? Skip over them genius.

    • Napoleon666

      Call me uncouth but most of these sound boring or just plain foolish.

  • segues

    I am humbled. Most of these books I have never heard of, and I’ve read *none* of them :( The descriptions are mouth-watering and I’ll be ordering them all from Amazon posthaste!

    Thanks for this list.

    • VintageObsessive

      I agree! I haven’t been fortunate enough to have read any of these books, and honestly, I probably wouldn’t have heard of most of the authors if not for this list. It was incredibly well written and I am excited to dive into each and every one of the books the author so graciously brought to my attention! ?

  • dizit

    Ahhhh, book lists! I’ve always found a fantastic sense of the absurd in fiction (and in life) to be particularly appealing. All the books on this list sound as if they’d fit that description.
    I’m happy to see a list on non-English/American writers because, although I’m American, it opens us to some unfamiliar authors. Not all of the writers are unfamiliar, of course, but several are completely new to me and so I’m anxious to be introduced.
    Thanks, Tombleweed, for a great list!!

  • TheCapitalLettter

    I have read some of these and they were great, although I am unfamiliar with the Belgian authors, I will give them a try. Thanks for the list!

  • Missy

    ‘Invitation to a Beheading’ was quite a good book. Worth a read. Haven’t read the others though.

  • Blight.

    I wouldn’t read any of these, as they are not interesting in the least.

    • Conrad

      Right… But did you read any of these? Is your statement based on experience or just assumption?

    • Frank

      I find it hard to believe a sub-normal c*nt like you ever advanced past ‘See Spot Run’ so kindly f*ck right off you Failtroll.

      • Maggot

        You crack me up, Frank. And I mean that sincerely. Somewhere out there is a troll who needs you.

  • Conrad

    Where’s Mikhail Bulgakov? Surely he deserves a notable omission at least!

    • Slappy

      Isn’t that exactly what he got? Perhaps he could have received a Dishonorable Mention?

      • Conrad

        Lol, well that’s probably right! He was a bit of a d**k but “The Master and Margarita” is one of the most ground-breaking novels of all times, however, I appreciate his short stories a lot more.
        On the same token I don’t get why Nikos Kazantzakis was excluded?

  • Art Vandelay

    Just as an aside, whenever I see a great list about lesser know books I always love to throw in The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. Granted he is an American author, but I strongly recommend reading it, an amazing collection of short stories!

  • Armadillo

    Nothomb is my favorite author. She’s a genius.

  • Nico O.

    Europeans only? This is distressing. What about African, Asian, or Ibero-American writers, to say the least?

    • Nico O.

      I stand corrected, Abe is on the list. Still, the list still seems way too eurocentric to me.

      • Tombleweed

        I have to admit that the Non-western writers are not very well represented, but that’s just because I haven’t read enough of them that could fit the list. I also have the feeling that most of the works produced outside of Europe and the US are more conventional thematically and stylistically. But correct me if I’m wrong. I’d love to find out about more non-western authors!

        • Metalwrath

          I wouldn’t be surprised if that is true. I’m guessing that’s because of the enlightenment era, and onwards, giving the West a large advantage – being responsible for inventing and developing most of the literary genres. Authors like Hugo, Poe, Verne, and whatnot became actual celebrities in their times. The rest of the world only really started catching up on this after the last world war, and still I believe culturally there is a higher emphasis for literature in the West. I’m French, and my father is a published poet (and fairly famous) and French teacher, and people from India or Africa flock to Paris to follow writing and literature courses at the Sorbonne. Many eventually stay in France if they can since that’s where they can be published, that’s where there are important literature societies.

        • Mithrandir

          I beg to disagree tombleweed, a lot of non-western writers have actually developed quite a unique style of literature; they tap into their history and native culture thus creating a sense of mysticism, (i.e., magic realism) in the works of authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Many non-western writers have also embraced a genre called post-colonialism, a subversive, satirical and often poignant (and nostalgic if you are from that country) literary style.One other thing is that many writers in these countries (such in as my country, the Philippines) write in English, (or in the language of their colonial masters)which resolves the argument of some literary purists that translated works are diluted.
          P.S. For starters you might want to read, works of F. Sionel Jose, and NVM Gonzales from the Philippines, and Arundhati Roy from India

  • One of the problems I find with translated works is that they do not capture everything of the original. It can make the book confusing sometimes.

    Of the list I’ve only hear of Amelie Nothomb, I’ve read the Book of Proper Names, it was a strange book but very well written

    • Tombleweed

      Well, just like you have good books, you have good translations. And books that were good in the original version can suck in the translation. But try living in a country where they speak only Dutch ;-) (though i read English novels in English and German ones in German)

    • Manchez

      In addition, we have the issue of cultural relativity / emotions pinned to certain terms and phrases that typically “go above the head”. Most writing should never be translated and all writing is never truly translated in full. I hold this view because English is not my first language, it is one of my second languages. One must learn the vernacular of the original text to fully appreciate the meaning.

      • Tombleweed

        The thing is that if English isn’t your mother tongue, and you read a book in English from let’s say India, this sense of abstraction isn’t different from when you read a translation. I do agree that translations can never grasp the full palet of the original. Still, I’ve read some very good translations in the past, and if a book that you can’t read in its original language still impresses you in its translation, then it’s worth translating it

  • Lisa Marie

    I want to read the Box Man and Hygiene & The Assassin!

  • Stokely Carmichael

    I immediately thought of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

    • Tombleweed

      errr. Not exactly the kind of literature I meant…. Scandinavian authors who fit this list more: Erlend Loe and Arto Paasilinna

  • Bridget

    I love this list. I want to devour every book mentioned. The Nigerian author Ben Okri is a notable omission though. In The Famished Road the lines are blurred between the real and spirit worlds and his writing style fills all the senses. See a review here. http://www.thenewcanon.com/famishedroad.html

    • Tombleweed

      Thanks! I’ll put it on my reading list

  • oouchan

    Love this list. I’ve read only one “Death and The Penguin” but none of the others. Many of them seem quite interesting to me. Got more to add to my ever growing list of books to read.
    Thanks for a refreshing topic.

    Great list.

  • vanowensbody

    Nice list. Interesting.

  • Sausses

    Nice list, only read Nabokov.
    BTW, it should be Michel, not Michael Gondry.

  • psychosurfer

    Another fan of Boris Vian, this is unusual. I liked the entries and immediately thought about the Israeli author Etgar Keret, his short stories in “Missing Kissinger” fit perfectly into this list.
    A lot more famous and still one of my favorite writers which combine surrealism and everyday life with cunning intelligence, entertaining style and masterful technique is the Argentinian Julio Cortazar. Some of his best stories include one about about a guy who gets stuck while putting on a sweater or another one where a traffic jam goes on for weeks.
    For people looking for Latin American authors I strongly recommend his work.

  • Lille

    The Forest of Hours by Kerstin Ekman should fit the list.

  • rajimus123

    i love to read surrealist books, i think i have my reading list for the next 6 months. great list!

  • Item #3 s/b “centaur” if he wants half-man and half-horse. (And if he wants half man, half bear, and half pig, then that’s just “man-bear-pig, FYI.)

    • Tombleweed

      Darned Mythology. You’re absolutely right.

  • john

    this list is way too eurocentric

    • Tombleweed

      Do suggest some alternatives!

  • I feel like Kafka could have had a work of his own on this list, but then again, if you are interested in offbeat Non-English literature and don’t know of Kafka, then something’s not right.

    • Tombleweed

      Kafka was a usual suspect, that’s why I didn’t add him here. But you’re right. Kafka should be the big king of this list.

      • fendabenda

        What about Nikolai Gogol? Usual suspect?

  • Reblogged this on My Name is Marcy and commented:
    Added to the reading list.

  • Guest

    Only read the last two mentioned, as well as Queneau’s ”Zazie dans le metro” which i found rather boring. ”L’hygiene de l’assassin” is an amazing book which very much enjoyed, and ”Foam of the Daze” (which transcribed from french ”L’écume des jours” actually means ”Foam of the Days”, but the replacement Daze for Days works very well with the book) is required reading for me every year.

    I would suggest also reading Amelie Nothomb’s ”Les Catillinaires”, another disturbing and prodding work in the same vein. I would also suggest first reading ”L’arrache-coeur” (”The heart snatcher”?) from Vian before delving into ”Foam of the Daze” because it supplies context and a broader understanding of Vian’s themes and methods in a more accessible way.

    I for one very much enjoyed this list and will attempt to read all of these!

  • Worldly

    Only one non-white author listed? Hmmmm… Let’s try a non-racist, non-Eurocentric list next time.

    • Tombleweed

      This has gotta nothing to do with ethnics off course, but only with books i love to read. It’s also funny that eurocentric lists aren’t allowed, but that most book lists here always contain a lot of Americans… But that doesn’t seem to be a problem…?

  • trollKing

    stupid list.

    TLDR

  • VintageObsessive

    This is a fantastic list, one of the best I’ve found on LV. The descriptions of each book were both informative and entertaining. I hope to see many more lists by the author. :)

  • coRYU

    Only one non-euro? And well, I think well known works serve better here like Kalfa (german), and Voltaire, etc. But I think compared to douglas adams, Chuck P., Neil Gaiman, John Swift etc. these authors on the list aren’t as off beat except the Box Man entry. More asian reference!

    • Tombleweed

      Have you read them, is the question I then ask. A lot of these novels mentioned here are more offbeat than Palahniuk and Douglas Adams. And I say that as a fan of both. But please try them, and then let me know!

      • coRYU

        Sry, guess I hadn’t but still there are more populaur non english author that fit the bill – maybe a “most unknown non-english adsurdist” keeps Kalfka off, r?
        I like the suggestions – box man reminds me of Dorohidoro or Uzimaki manga. I def. liked the list – think english writers in the pop. are too tame (Rowling and Meyers) so english companion list?

  • k1

    ARSE- this site is created for the learning and entertainment of everybody. So if this list does not fit your taste after you read it, get outta here and go anywhere else. You don’t have right to criticize other people’s ideas. Your suggestion below to teach 500 kids to share wisdom is not a point. Listverse has more than 500 viewers. LEARN TO RESPECT OTHER PEOPLE’S VIEWS! If you don’t have anything good to say, shut up.

  • natalia

    Great list! I enjoyed reading it.

  • Manchez

    I’ve read most of these and think that it’s good fiction for the mind. This is a nice list. I will be checking out those books I haven’t read.

  • MathWillSaveUS

    Very intersting. Unfortunately, I don’t allow myslef to read fiction- too many technical books to digest…

    Can ayone, please, come up with a list of experimental textbooks on math and science written to make the technical reading a pleasure?

  • Pauly

    Metamorphosis-Franz Kafka

  • PisspotyDont

    The ads are still evil. Sellout!

    • How much have you paid to use this site?

  • Christopher Libby

    Haruki Murakami, I suggest, would fit nicely on this list. I suggest his collection of short stories “The Elephant Vanishes” for the first time reader.

    • Tombleweed

      True, Murakami fits this list. The reason I haven’t included him, is because he seems to be on every book list on the web, and my goal was to suggest books that people still have to discover. But Murakami for the win!

      • Christopher Libby

        Bravo for including Kobo Abe – an excellent discovery for anyone not familiar with his work. I will be exploring the rest of this fine list.

  • Jay

    I would like to mention “Almost Transparent Blue” by Ryu Murakami. I read it when I was younger and it most certainly fits the criteria of this list.

  • Rich

    I haven’t read any of these books but am always up for new off beat literature. I am mainly a mainstream book reader (but love social commentary writers like Ben Elton), but my brother is in to this sort of stuff.

    He introduced me to a book called The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia. Very experimental but an excellent and interesting read! Do it!

    Nice list!

  • v123

    “involve minotaurs who aren’t half man half horse, but half man half motorcycle”

    Centaurs maybe? It would be really unusual for minotaurs to be half-horse.

    A great list. Wrote down some titles for my to-read list.

  • OmegaMan

    Thank you for publishing this list Listverse. :)

    More books added to ‘to-read’ list. Yippee !!

  • Ashwin

    A nice list but what about all the Indian offbeat writers who have written pulitzer winning literary works

  • Is One Hundred Years of Solitude too famous to list?

  • lakshay

    where the hell is rabindranath tagore????????

  • Thanks for the list. All of these books seem interesting. I actually ordered a couple off of Amazon already. The first one I received was Tonguecat and I’ve already started reading that one. About a hundred pages into and it’s interesting so far. Definitely and offbeat novel. I also ordered Blue Flowers and I’m really looking forward to that one.